Mountain West in for a wild year
Let's see ... the defending champ lost its coaches, the traditional powers are struggling and Wyoming is the preseason favorite. It's a wild year in the Mountain West.
Wyoming coach Joe Glenn is fond of saying, "There's only one way to eat an elephant -- one bite at a time."
That sounds like an unusual lunch, and the image inspires a wrinkled eyebrow, which makes it an appropriate way to introduce the Mountain West Conference in 2005.
How does the conference stack up? Would you like fresh ground pepper on your elephant?
In the conference's preseason media poll, four teams -- out of nine -- received first-place votes, with three getting five or more.
So, basically, no one has any idea what will happen. A pecking order, therefore, only figures to reveal itself one week at a time.
"There are seven teams that can compete for the championship," said Wyoming quarterback Corey Bramlet, without fingering the two lonely left-outs, popularly assumed to be UNLV and San Diego State.
Utah, the two-time defending champion, emerged from the voting with the top spot, despite losing its coach (Urban Meyer), its All-American quarterback (NFL No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith) and 10 other starters.
New Mexico was second and Glenn's Cowboys third. The Lobos haven't won a bowl game since 1961, while Wyoming dispatched a 38-year streak of postseason futility with a victory over UCLA in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl.
What about BYU, Colorado State and Air Force, the former Western Athletic Conference powers that until recently dwelled in the penthouse of the six-year-old Mountain West? All three finished with losing records last year and are generating little preseason buzz.
"I was even surprised with being picked that high [fourth], with what has happened to us the past few years," said BYU quarterback John Beck, with just a hint of gamesmanship.
Then there's TCU, which is trying on its fourth conference in the past decade. The Horned Frogs are projected to finish in the bottom half of the league, despite posting three 10-win seasons in the past five years.
The muddle isn't helping the MWC's national image. A year after Utah's unbeaten run and Fiesta Bowl victory earned the conference a stake of BCS riches to the tune of about $1 million per team, no squad earned a spot in the preseason USA Today coaches' poll.
Wyoming could change that quickly if it pulls a shocker and ruins Meyer's debut at Florida on Sept. 3. Though that's a decided longshot, Glenn expects his stunning reclamation project -- the Cowboys won five games in the three seasons before he arrived -- to take another step forward, as he returns 19 starters from a 7-5 squad.
"We want to win the conference championship -- that's the next logical step," Glenn said. "Our kids feel like they belong now."
Some once doubted whether Glenn and his veteran staff -- they've combined for more than a century of coaching experience, most of it together -- belonged in Division I-A, when they arrived at Wyoming after winning two Division II national titles at Northern Colorado (1996 and 1997) and a I-AA championship at Montana in 2001.
No longer. If the Cowboys win the conference, Glenn will move to the top of a short list of hot candidates for BCS coaching vacancies; see Meyer's ascension. (Glenn's now programmed, blanket denial: "I don't have visions of grandeur ... I pretty much live in the here and now.")
Glenn won over some believers during his first season by beating BYU and Colorado State, a combination the program hadn't accomplished since 1988. A further affirmation came via adversity last year during a bye week following a humbling 31-0 defeat at Texas A&M.
"That was not a good experience for us," Bramlet said. "It was a reality check. It put us in our place and told us we're not that good yet."
Instead of thinking, "same old Wyoming," and slipping back into the unambitious expectations typical of the players Glenn chased off when he arrived, the team renewed its focus and took another bite of that elephant.
A shocking 37-32 victory over Ole Miss the next weekend gave the program its first win against an SEC team and set a tone that lasted through a spirited performance against UCLA.
Victories over a pair of BCS conference squads has the Cowboys convinced they won't flinch in the Swamp or during a visit to the revenge-minded Rebels and fiery new coach Ed Orgeron, who figures to relentlessly hound his players with last year's game film.
The old powers, like BYU, respect what the Cowboys have accomplished but certainly aren't ready to allow their sudden rise to become a trend without a fight.
Beck, a lifelong BYU fan, admitted that it felt strange looking up at Wyoming in the preseason prognostications. The Cougars' recent tumble to mediocrity is a big reason 38-year-old Bronco Mendenhall was promoted from defensive coordinator to replace the fired Gary Crowton, now the offensive coordinator at Oregon.
That's not the only big change. For the fourth time in seven years, BYU redesigned its uniforms, but this change feels like a correction for traditionalists like Beck and Mendenhall. The program is returning to the colors and logos of the days when LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow led one of the nation's most potent offenses and the Holiday Bowl was an annual road trip for Mormons across the country.
"I think it's huge," Beck said. "Those were the jerseys I watched growing up. That was the symbol of BYU football. Everybody wanted to go back to those uniforms."
So BYU is trying to recover its storied past, Utah would prefer to continue recent trends and Wyoming is aiming to take another bite of Glenn's elephant.
But don't be surprised if New Mexico, Colorado State, TCU and Air Force try to take their own taste.
Ted Miller covers college football for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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